Friday, December 14, 2012

Hitchcock, Killing Them Softly, Anna Karenina

      “I Coulda Been a Contenda” … and One that 
      Probably Will Be at Oscar Time
               Review by Ken Burke        Hitchcock

Rather than attempting an in-depth biography of Alfred H., this movie just plays with the master’s difficulty in breaking his own mold to make Psycho; fun but a bit thin.

                                                                        Killing Them Softly
Brad Pitt and a lot of other well-known faces appear in this somewhat comic crime-revenge story that treads lightly into territory done better in Pulp Fiction and Killer Joe.

                                                                       Anna Karenina
Fans of Tolstoy’s classic romance may embrace this latest version; I find it terribly melodramatic, but the allusions that we’re watching it as a stage play are fascinating.

                   First Year Anniversary Edition of Film Reviews 
                               from Two Guys in the Dark!!!
            I won’t be able to get this latest review posted until a day or two from now, but as I begin writing it on Dec. 12, 2012 this is not only a very rare calendar date (you’ll have to wait 100 years for it to recur) and the occasion of the huge concert tonight benefiting the East Coast victims of Hurricane Sandy but it’s also the first anniversary of the first posting of this film review blog, inspired by the guy on the far right in the above photo (with Pat in the photo's left, me in the center), my friend and film-fiend colleague, Barry Caine, who extended his esteemed career as a film critic and almost-as-long friendship with me and Pat Craig to encourage us to launch this enterprise.  I know that my asides and rambles are too long for Barry’s tastes (for him brevity is not only the soul of wit but also the focus of most good writing—I still haven’t been able to get him into Steven King’s massive 11/22/63 [another significant date] yet because of its heft), but he’s always encouraged me to keep writing as I see fit (even if it gives him fits), so thanks again, mentor-san, for helping push Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark into existence.  This posting marks #56, with the actual reviews now totaling 100 films (another significant number).  Thanks also to our glorious members, our regular commenters—especially the eloquent Richard J. Parker (see Comments at the end below)—and anyone who’s ever read one of our postings.  There’ll be much more to come in 2013, hopefully including the debut of my silent partner, Pat (I’d call him a ghost writer, not because he writes something that others take credit for or because he writes ghost stories but because he’s always with us in spirit).  So, with the celebratory preliminaries done, let’s mosey on into the review of the week, buckaroos.

            Our focus this go round is on some recent acting performances that have gotten a lot of press coverage but mostly won’t be contenders come Oscar time (but the holy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences makes some unexpected choices in their nominees and winners—witness Art Carney in 1974’s Harry and Tonto [Paul Mazursky] beating Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part II [Francis Ford Coppola], leaving the Academy the dubious choice of finally catching up with Pacino in 1992’s Scent of a Woman [Martin Brest]—“Hoo-ah!” indeed—thereby neglecting Denzel Washington in Malcolm X [Spike Lee], etc. [with possibly the worst travesty of all being the 1977 defeat of Richard Burton in Equus (Sidney Lumet) in favor of Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl (Herbert Ross)—now there’s a decision that really rates a “Hoo-ah!]), but who knows who the finalists will be until that long-anticipated Oscar announcement (although we got a good indication of it with the release of the Screen Actors Guild nominees this week:  Best Actor—Daniel Day-Lewis [Lincoln*, Steven Spielberg], Denzel Washington [Flight*, Robert Zemeckis], John Hawkes [The Sessions*, Ben Lewin], Hugh Jackman [Les Misérables, Tom Hooper] and Bradley Cooper [Silver Linings Playbook*, David O. Russell]—sorry, Joaquin Phoenix [whom I’d nominate for The Master* (Paul Thomas Anderson), even as I’d promote that unlikely possibility as Best Picture just as I went out into left field last year with my preference [and this blog’s first posted review] for Melancholia* (Lars von Trier); Best Actress—Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow), Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook), Helen Mirren (Hitchcock, Sacha Gervasi—finally justifying the whole premise of this week’s review, thanks to the Goddess), Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone, Jacques Audiard), and Naomi Watts (The Impossible, Juan Antonio Bayona)—and not having seen those last two nor Les Mis I can’t yet say if Ann Dowd was stiffed for her work in Compliance (Craig Zobel, more on that below, but details on the SAG nominations at All of which finally brings me to the actual start of the actual review, with comments on Hitchcock and the likelihood that we won’t be seeing Anthony Hopkins on stage next Feb. in L.A. unless he’s giving a gold statuette to someone else.  (By the way, Barry’s already leaving to check on computer tablet options, having been bored silly by how long it’s taken for me to finally get to some actual comments on this movie, but it was nice having you drop by for the anniversary party; see you again next year!)

            (*Reviews for these films can be found in our blog listings, in the order of the films’ appearance in the above paragraph, at Nov. 26, 2012; Nov. 9, 2012; Nov. 26, 2012 [again]; Sept. 27, 2012; and Dec. 12, 2011.  To further complicate things, in the two days since I started writing this review in my “spare time,” the Golden Globe acting nominations have also been announced, with some SAG overlaps and some additions—made more complex in comparison because the Globes break Best Actor and Actress into two categories: drama and musical or comedy.  Most of what they recognize in that second group rarely gets acknowledgement by SAG and the Academy, but this year those latter Best Actor nominees include Cooper and Jackman, with the drama nominees paralleling some of the SAG ones but including Phoenix and Richard Gere for Arbitrage [Nicholas Jarecki]—reviewed here in the Sept. 22, 2012 posting.  For Best Actress in a drama the Globe contenders overlap the SAG ones with the exception of Lawrence being in the musical or comedy category, opening up a drama slot for Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea [Terence Davies]—reviewed here on April 12, 2012.  We’ll learn in a few weeks how this all shakes out for the Oscar finalists, then in Feb. we'll see if the SAG and Globe winners impact the Oscar choices.)

            Hopkins does a very credible job of bringing the Master of Suspense back to life for Hitchcock, although beyond the superb acting of all concerned I’m not sure why we need yet another remake of Psycho (Wasn’t Gus Van Sant’s 1998 version enough?  Or maybe more than enough?), but at least all of the behind-the-scenes melodrama makes for a fun experience as we see current celebrities (Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel, James D’Arcy [not as famous yet as his co-stars, despite a long résumé, but also available in Cloud Atlas (Tom Tykwer, Andy and Lana Wachowski—review in our blog at Nov. 3, 2012)] playing Psycho stars Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, and Anthony Perkins (although it feels to me a bit too much like one of those VH1 memory-lane strolls packed with all of the pop-up trivia [as with Argo (Ben Affleck) and Zero Dark Thirty, the difficulty with revisiting historical realities that we already know the outcome of—Psycho was a smash hit and is an ongoing cultural landmark so Hitch’s concerns about being an over-the-hill director were well-presented but already negated for us before the opening scene of this current biopic—is trying to maintain a proper sense of tension for the audience, just as Hitchcock himself played with our emotions by revealing to us the dangers a character might be in before he or she knew it, thereby keeping us on edge even as those within the film had no idea what awaited them]).  Hitchcock was too much of a known entity through his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents—which this movie emulates at the beginning and end by having him talk directly to us—cameos in his films (see the YouTube link below for a quick montage of all of them), and various interviews in a variety of media for Hopkins to try to impersonate him fully (especially compared with Day-Lewis’ seeming holographic recreation of Lincoln), so instead he piles on an appropriate amount of latex without completely burying himself in it, finds a consistent voice that’s appropriate but not something that would fool you if you played recordings of Hitchcock and Hopkins side-by-side, and commands a mannered personification that would play as too flamboyant for the average rich guy in Tulsa or Cincinnati but likely would be what you’d expect from someone who’d been celebrated in Hollywood for so long for losing himself into entertainment vehicles where exaggerations of human emotions and reactions are the accepted norm.  Hopkins provides a very effective, very enthralling version of Hitchcock, so much so that we can actually believe that he was at a career point of 60 year-old self-doubt that needed to be overcome with Psycho’s breakthrough into related but new territory, not the thrillers he was truly the established master of but a cut-rate psychological horror film that has spawned decades of slasher descendants from the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), to the original Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980), to the original Saw (James Wan, 2004) and all their countless sequels, remakes, and increasingly gory derivatives.

            However, despite Hopkins’ imposing presence as Alfred Hitchcock, the woman behind the throne (as is usually the case; I speak from experience, although my throne is next to the cat box), both in real life concerning his wife and creative collaborator (including as un-credited producer, script re-writer, and associate film editor), Alma Reville, and in movie life as Alma is portrayed by the marvelous Helen Mirren, is the almost-invisible but essential force that finds the necessary energy and vision to make his self-financed gamble with this “unwholesome” film pay off and salvage the mortgage collateral on their home.  (Don’t forget that the last remnants of the decades-long, movie-industry-sponsored, self-censoring Hays Office was still imposing strict limits on what could be shown, so that Marion Crane’s famous shower scene send-off never actually shows the “unacceptable” nude parts of her body [which Hitchcock refers to as “titty-lating” in a mispronunciation intended to tweak the blue noses putting up obstacles] nor does Norman’s knife ever touch her flesh, despite the editing and staccato violin score that gives a more graphic impression than is actually there; even more scandalous in some minds in long-ago, not-yet-dawning-of-the-Age-of-Aquarius 1960 was the fact that he actually showed a flushing toilet on screen, although it was just paper evidence that Marion was eliminating, not anything unacceptable as a screen presence:  blood yes, urine no.)  Alma has plenty to be concerned about beyond the needed success of Psycho, as she’s fed up with being the silent partner on the Hitchcock creative team, disgusted with her husband’s constant interest in stunning blonde actresses, and a bit unclear where she wants to go regarding her friendship and scriptwriting partnership with Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston)—that is, until she catches him at the ocean-side cottage that was supposed to be their creative hideaway with a woman that clearly isn’t his wife (whether she leaves in such a huff because of his brazen infidelity or because that infidelity wasn’t with her isn’t clear, so it’s not just her integrity that may be fueling her anger at this point).  Whatever her motivations (most likely her sense of self-disgust after Cook asks her not to tell Hitch about his liaison, not out of respect for his marriage but out of protection for the project that he wants Alma’s husband to direct), she turns her ferocious energies back into Psycho, working with Hitchcock to pound it into shape as the archetypal horror movie success that we now know and love so well.

            The final cut, along with the clever marketing campaign that built mystery around the plot’s unexpected secrets (detailed in the second Hitchcock YouTube video noted below, which probably brings another surprise to contemporary start-time-aware audiences that in those days of yore a lot of viewers simply showed up when convenient, watched the film to the end, stayed through the constant flow of previews, newsreels, and cartoons, then caught the beginning of the feature until “This is where we came in” and left; I’d gotten out of that viewing mode by the time I started making my own movie dates in high school, but the “whenever we get there” attitude was something I remember from going to movies in my early years with my parents, as particular show times were not that important until Hitchcock insisted with Psycho that you had to observe them) does rescue Hitchcock’s potential folly, which barely survived the obstructionist censors and studio executives, and seemingly puts the creative couple’s marriage back on solid ground for the last 20 years of the Suspense Master’s life.  But if the research behind this story is accurate, Hitchcock’s success owed a lot more to his unsung spouse than we’d yet been led to believe.

            Where this story of the making of Psycho begins to experiment with Gus Van Sant territory (whose Psycho remake was largely a duplicate of the original in its visuals, although shot in color rather than the effective [and economical] black and white of Hitchcock’s film but with a very disturbing soundtrack where non-diegetic murmured voices and noises [that is, sounds that exist in our auditorium but not in the characters' world] were intended to unnerve the audience in the way that Marion and her sister were unnerved by Norman) is in the use of Hitchcock’s troubled-mind night dreams and intense daydreams of the presence of Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) in Hitchcock’s life (in one of these, Ed is Hitch’s psychiatrist, hearing the great director’s lament that he gets audience attention but no awards—a statement “protective” of Hitchcock’s reputation by the situation of this being a fantasy projection but which still speaks to the cruel reality that he never got a Best Director Oscar, even when his American debut, Rebecca [1940], won Best Picture but he lost to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath [hard to argue that result, though]).  Gein is the insane man whose murders and grave robbings in his native Wisconsin were the inspiration for Robert Bloch’s Psycho novel (and Hitchcock’s film) and the later manifestations of killers who remove and use the skin of their victims in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)—the later also starring Hopkins but as a different type of serial killer than the abductor that’s the object of Agent Starling’s (Jody Foster) investigation.  This fictional device of Ed’s intrusion adds another layer of troubling intensity to Hitchcock, as does the marvelous editing of Hitchcock’s mounting frustration leading to angry knife-wielding of his own to get the proper sense of fright out of Leigh in the famous shower scene, along with a parallel to that at the film’s premiere as the audience screams from the auditorium, seemingly orchestrated by Hitchcock as conductor behind closed doors in the empty lobby.  It all combines for an amusing look at the more-fragile-than-expected off-screen life of one of the most celebrated of all filmmakers, with solid acting expertise all around—especially Mirren who’s alternately charming, fuming, devastated, and commanding in her role, completely praiseworthy in her skill.  She’s likely to be an Oscar contender, even though she has considerable competition from others who are more likely to take home the gold; Hopkins gave it a memorable try, difficult as it is to bring screen presence to such a cultural icon, but even if he were nominated I doubt that anyone could choose any performance for an actor this year that transcends the triumphant accomplishment of Day-Lewis in Lincoln.

            I found Hitchcock to be very entertaining in its skewerings of the politics and pomposity of the movie industry (as done so well also by Alan Arkin and John Goodman in their roles in Argo—with Arkin snagging a SAG Best Supporting Actor nomination as well, plus a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe nod), but, unlike the actual rotund director, it’s more slim than substantial, fun while it lasts but quickly left behind after all is calm again in the Hitchcock household.

            Another example of a fine acting accomplishment getting a lot of positive press is Brad Pitt’s work in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, which is more of a contemplative film on aspects of crime and the “workers” in this industry than it is a gangster formulaic genre movie, despite its surface appearances (given all of the introspection and ruminations on life and its obligations/ inequities it’s almost like a gangster movie as made by Ingmar Bergman but, as such, not as successful as it should be for standard audience expectations given all of that self-doubt and complex dialogue, as if Bergman couldn’t keep himself from drifting back into art film territory).  It resembles Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) in its consciously-absurdist plot situations and lengthy dialogue exchanges punctuated by occasional bursts of grotesque violence, but the comparison ends when quality of concept and impact are taken into account, with Pulp Fiction the clear winner by a knockout, although Killing Them Softly is interesting enough in its own manner.  (“Alright in a sort of limited way for an off-night” to quote Paul Simon from “I Know What I Know” on the 1986 Graceland album; take a listen if you like at, and while you’re at it, if you’re like me and just can’t keep reading Killing THEM Softly without thinking of the song “Killing ME Softly,” then you might as well hum along with that one too at while reading this review.  The reading while listening would actually be very much in keeping with the mood of this film which uses some pop songs to nice—but obvious—effect in linking/contrasting the lyrics to the action on screen, another trick essentially stolen from Tarantino).  The action—when there’s some of it, worked in around the lengthy scenes of talk, talk, talk—takes place in the grimmer sections of New Orleans (no Bourbon Street nightclubs here, just low-level low-life guys who’ve probably had too much bourbon in their lives and not enough of anything else).  Plot-wise, it’s all about Johnny “Squirrel” Amato’s (Vincent Curatola) squirrelly plan to rob the high-stakes poker game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), a guy Amato assumes will be blamed by the mob for hijacking his own game because he did it before years ago then got away Scott-free by laughingly admitting the concocted heist.  The robbery is to be done by serious-to-a-fault Frankie (Scoot [now there's a name for you] McNairy), who recruits his friend, faulty-functioning heroin-addict Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a guy so out of it that when told to wear gloves to the robbery he shows up with the yellow plastic dishwashing variety.

            Somehow, these two idiots manage to make off with the cash from the mobsters’ poker game, leading to the recruitment of an outsider hitman, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), to make things right.  In the background throughout the film we get radio and TV snippets of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and John McCain from the fall 2008 election season, taking place within the context of the financial meltdown that caused our ongoing economic Recession, with the clear implication that in a capitalist society all handlers of capital are essentially crooks that need to be periodically put back in line by more powerful crooks so that the system will work as intended for the bosses but still allow stability for the rest of us underlings (or as Bob Dylan sang in “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” [from the 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home; you can sing along with this one too if you like at]:  “Although the masters make the rules, For the wise men and the fools, I got nothing, Ma, to live up to”).

            What Jackie has to live up to is his self-determined vision of what it takes to return order to the system, so, even though his mob employers just want him to shake Markie up a bit to insure that he really didn’t have anything to do with the scheme this time, Jackie insists that Markie become a marked man for elimination, which he carries out in a vicious slo-mo manner that begins with his preferred method of murder from a bit of a distance with a high-powered rifle (Jackie’s philosophy:  “You ever kill anyone?  They get touchy-feely.  Emotional.  A lot of fuss.  They either plead or beg.  They call for their mothers.  I like killing them softly.”) but ends with a close finish. (Markie’s had a rough time of all through the film, as he was previously pounded to a bloody pulp by a local thug, Dillon [Sam Shepard], and his accomplice in the first response of the mobsters to their suspicions; in ironic Tarantino fashion the actual killing of Markie is accompanied by the song “Love Letters (Straight from Your Heart”) which you can revisit in the 1964 version by Ketty Lester at  Later, Jackie finds out about the real plot and tracks down Squirrel and Frankie to escort them to their demise, but he doesn’t get a chance to off Russell whose drug-fueled celebration ends up with his arrest (although I’m sure a mere jail cell wouldn’t stop Jackie if he really wanted to truly wrap up all the lose ends, as is his method, including having his own accomplice, Mickey Fallon [James Gandolfini], arrested because he suddenly takes a pragmatic stand against his buddy’s rampant sex and alcohol addiction [given the context of this film, you could hardly assume Jackie’s morals were offended by Mickey’s obsessions]).  Jackie is clearly a bad ass among bad asses (when we first see him he’s accompanied on the soundtrack by Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around” [from the 2002 album American IV: The Man Comes Around]; you know you want to sing some more, so here you go with the Man in Black at  However, when all the killing’s done, Jackie faces an economic reality that parallels the crisis the country’s fallen into while he’s been on his revenge spree:  the mob decides that he won’t get his full promised fee because of the mess he created with the extra killing and arrests, to which he replies to his contact, Driver (Richard Jenkins): “I’m living in America and in America you’re on your own.  Now, fuckin’ pay me!” as the soundtrack takes us into the credits with “Money” (you can leave this part of the review singing along as well; there are lots of versions of this one so here are the early Beatles banging it out at

            That final mini-soliloquy from Jackie reminds me of the opening statement in the Coen brothers’ 1984 Blood Simple from private detective Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) who’s about as lawless and ruthless as Jackie: 

The world is full o' complainers. An' the fact is, nothin' comes with a guarantee. Now I don't care if you're the pope of Rome, President of the United States or Man of the Year; somethin' can all go wrong. Now go on ahead, y'know, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help, 'n watch him fly. Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else... that's the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, an' down here... you're on your own.  (Those of us from or still in Texas know exactly what he’s talking about.)

            You’re pretty much on your own with Killing Them Softly as well; some might find it fascinating or at least amusing, others might see it as Pulp Fiction-lite or prefer the even more Southern-fried version of such debauchery as presented last year (although it didn’t get to the San Francisco area until late summer of this year, an unusual lag) in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe with Matthew McConaughey as the stone-cold hired killer (there's a review in this blog at August 30, 2012).
I liked Killing Them Softly’s audacity of attitude and pseudo-intellectualizing of the lives of scumbag criminals (and the audacity of just about all of the characters except Jackie who think they can get away with something beyond their capacities), plus there is a great cast here to watch go through their paces even if such routines seem as ridiculous to you as the animal prancing at horse or dog shows, so I could certainly understand why anyone (like our faithful follower, rjp, noted far below in the Comments section) would find all of this criminal "eloquence" augmented with bloodbaths to be just a mess of silliness or worse.  Overall, I enjoyed it more than less; still, it’s no contender for anybody’s Top 10 of the year and will likely not bring any Best Actor nominations for Pitt, despite the positive attention that he’s gathered for the role.

            My final exploration into a performance that’s gotten a lot of praise, even if the film itself is tanking, concerns Keira Knightley in Joe Wright’s latest adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 novel, Anna Karenina.  (Total gross as I’m writing is about $6.5 million for Anna, a pathetic sum after 4 weeks of release;  Hitchcock’s at a measly $1.6 million after 3 weeks but it’s just now going wider and increased it’s take by 74% last week [Anna increased its screens as well but dropped off by 31%  at the box office], while by comparison Killing Them Softly is close to $12 million after just 2 weeks but it’s going into free-fall as well in income despite playing in over 2,400 theatres.)  Based on the SAG nominations for Best Actress (a harbinger of Oscar nominees, given that so many of the same folks are voting for nominees for both awards) I’m not sensing that Ms. Knightley’s good press is going to translate into a nomination anywhere, nor can I offer any attempt at evaluating how well she embodies a universally-known character from one of the world’s great authors (I did read Dostoyevsky’s strangely-compelling 1866 Crime and Punishment many decades ago and got a few pages into Tolstoy’s 1869 War and Peace before abandoning it, so I admit I have no credibility regarding the Russian classics, although I also admit that my reviews tend to emulate them in length, especially in this First Year Anniversary Special Edition).  All I can honestly say about this film is that its repeated trope of the story more or less taking place as a theatrical production—but one that easily opens up into the space of the outside world—is very fascinating, much more so to me than the soap-opera melodrama of Anna, her somber but domineering husband, Karenin (Jude Law), and the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).  I have to assume that the much-lauded novel made for a more compelling tale of Anna’s romantic difficulties, but as this film presents her longing and tragic inability to connect with her dashing object of affection, I kept wondering when an evil twin, a couple of babies switched at birth, or a given-away-at-birth-but-suddenly-appeared-as-a-powerful-force-in-the-community child-grown-to-compelling-adulthood would suddenly appear, accompanied by a blast of ominous organ music.  Call me a philistine rube if you must, but if this is what Tolstoy built much of his reputation on then maybe I’d better reconsider the lasting culture value of those blockbuster Twilight stories (the latest one’s already picked up over $271 million, with the other 3's totals topping the $868 million mark in the domestic market alone and putting all of them into the Top 60 All-Time list)

            Knightley does an admirable job of being sensually appealing yet tormented over her social indiscretion in her 1874 imperial St. Petersburg, Russia setting, but had I known the narrative better I would have more knowingly joined some of my fellow critics in waiting for the last train to appear (in keeping with my random musical asides and in an attempt to turn up the tempo for this first-anniversary celebration of the blog site, you have to know that at this point I’d offer you the Monkees’1967 “Last Train to Clarksville” at, although a more appropriate choice would be the more serious “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” for which I should direct you to the Guy Clark original at but it’s hard for me to overlook my sentimental attachment to the Jerry Jeff Walker version at, in a complete diversion from anything to do with Anna Karenina, if you find that song from Walker’s 1973 Viva Terlingua album enjoyable you just have to go into the Texas Hill Country for a rendition of Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues” from the same source at, just so that I can acknowledge that I still find some things about my old home state to be memorable after all, even after all my years on the Left Coast of California).  OK, begrudgingly back to classic literature and its cinematic adaptations, although what works best for me in this version of Anna Karenina is the floating allusion of a stage play in which the characters at times perform their passions for an audience more direct than us in a movie theatre, yet they just as easily are in indoor and outdoor settings that are not even remotely considered to be contained within those theatre walls, even as characters walk away from the stage area through the wings and scaffolding behind the curtain into the next performance space which seems to be initially within the theatre setting (yet away from the main stage) but then opens up into the larger world of spatial location, only to have later scenes return us to the confined space of the main stage, sometimes with an audience watching the action and other times with only an empty hall where our narrative’s characters walk in front of the footlights or pass through the empty chamber in front of the stage on their way to another setting that takes us back into the larger, standard cinematic world.  (Wow!)

            At times the theatrical setting seems to be literal, as the novel’s chief characters play out their emotions in a public arena, changing costumes as they go through marvelously choreographed tracking shots that emulate the real-time pressures of a nightly live performance where the cinematic luxuries of countless start-over retakes are absent and the cast must maintain their pace and characterizations as the clock drives them along.  Still, with the focus on Anna’s indiscretions, mirrored by the same from her brother, Stepan Obionsky (Matthew Macfadyen)—which Anna ironically helps to stabilize with her plea for tolerance to her destitute sister-in-law—along with the subplot of the young landowner Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) pining for the unavailable love of Kitty (Alicia Vikander), this all feels to me like All My Children with snow (Along with the confusing but psychologically-potent situation that both Karenin and Vronsky have the same first name of Alexei! [Just as I have to deal with the strange reality of having the same name as my wife's father and brother; now isn't that interesting?]), with nothing of the heft of other romantic tragedies such as Othello or even Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)/Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981) to lift it out of the slush left over when that beautiful nighttime snow begins to melt with the reality of the light of day.  Within the limitations that this narrative (or at least this rendition of the narrative) provides, Knightley does an admirable job of displaying the previously-unknown passion that Vronsky has opened within her, just as the set designers, costumers, and cinematographer have used the tools of their arts to present a lavish, sumptuous spectacle, but one that feels devoid of real passion to me, especially compared to something that’s set in roughly the same time period in a Denmark that could easily be imperial Russia in Kenneth Branagh’s epic 1996 Hamlet (admittedly, a much loftier concept for a story but one that resonates with similar “palace” intrigue and difficulty of the protagonist acting upon passionate desires).  For me, this Anna Karenina is fascinating to watch because of the ongoing theatre implications (and the occasional visual manipulations such as Anna and Vronsky dancing as the others in the room seem frozen, just like the occasional aristocratic “statues” in Alain Resnais’ 1961 considerably more austere Last Year at Marienbad), but ultimately it’s empty in terms of dramatic reasons for caring about Anna’s marriage betrayal.  Maybe I just don’t know enough going into the experience to appreciate what I’m seeing, but if this silly story of breaking upper-crust society’s rules (echoes of Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece, Rules of the Game) is what makes for great literature and its cinematic equivalent then maybe I should start brushing up on Danielle Steel or at least understand that Ian Fleming was more than a sophisticated potboiler novelist.

           And, finally, one other performance that’s received a lot of notice, in an environment where it’s French-fry grease that boils rather than pots, books, or society sophisticates is Ann Dowd’s turn as Sandra, the ChickWich fast-food “restaurant” manager in the very disturbing Compliance—which I’ve just had a chance to see on video after missing it during its theatrical run—a sick story about a twisted guy who gets his jollies by calling the chicken-sandwich outlet, presenting himself to Sandra as a cop, “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy), who’s investigating the alleged theft of customer money by teenage worker Becky (Dreama Walker [no misprint, really; and I thought that Scoot was a unique name, but I guess it's just an abbreviation for Scooter, which has a fine heritage in the South]), then subjecting Becky to all manner of psychological abuse including accusations, a strip search, a probe of her privates, and finally a spanking by and oral sex with Sandra’s fiancée, Van (Bill Camp), all because Sandra and Van—unlike other workers at the store—are compliant in the abuse, seemingly incapable of doubting the veracity of the absurd situation, which destroys their relationship and leaves us wondering just what Sandra’s level of guilt in the whole affair should be, based on some questionable evidence that the police present her with just at the end of the film. Truly, though, the most horrifying aspect of Compliance is that it’s based on a real incident, with the even more horrifying reality that there have been about 70 of these vicious prank calls reported nationwide so some sickos in various places have gotten sharp on a demeaning strategy that takes us to even lower levels of human endeavors than what we see in Killing Them Softly.  Despite the strong buzz for Dowd as one of Oscar’s Best Supporting Actress nominees (seemingly a strategic decision to avoid the big names in the Best Actress race, although you’d have a hard time convincing me that Becky is the lead female character and, anyway, the Supporting Actress race is just as full of big names and impactful performances, with possibly Helen Hunt in The Sessions as the front-runner, at least in my estimation, although her character is clearly a lead in her film also [however, Nicole Kidman is amazing in The Paperboy (Lee Daniels) and Sally Field could easily ride a Lincoln wave, and both of them are nominated for the Golden Globes' Best Supporting Actress, where, unlike with the lead roles, the Globe folks don't set up separate competitions for the supporting ones]), she may be left out in the cold with most of the others I’ve profiled in this review, except Mirren for Hitchcock.

          In retrospect, Hitchcock would be the one of this whole bunch that I’d recommend most for pure entertainment value, but the creepy reality of how easily a set of constructed circumstances can defy all logic and lead us into the horrors of calculated manipulation makes Compliance the only one of these I’d give 4 stars to if I were including it with the formal reviews of the week (if you’d like to explore it more you might start with  Certainly there are other films that are likely to overwhelm all of these when the names are announced in about a month for Oscar nominations, but all of the performances I’ve noted here could easily deserve consideration, even if they don’t make the final cut for the year-end competitions.  To finish up this First-Anniversary edition from Two Guys in the Dark (and the third, Barry, lending support in the even-darker shadows [although that makes him sound like Johnny Depp in a vampire movie … well, you know, he does stay up late a lot; maybe he’s not just watching vampire and zombie stories and checking out auction investments but who am I to cast aspersions as the clock approaches 3am for me as well as I finish the writing but God only knows [OK, I couldn't resist one more sing-along option so here are the Beach Boys at] when I’ll finally get it posted), thanks again to anyone of the over 10,000 hits that have read our postings and stay with us—that “us” includes Pat, my so-far silent partner—as we explore the ongoing releases of the years to come (in which I’ll be constantly helped by dialogue with my astounding wife, Nina, whose presence hasn’t found any other manifestation in this anniversary review so I’ll just note that she was much more intrigued with Anna Karenina than I was, but she did read the book and she’s always had a warm spot in her heart for the title because it connects her to her youngest sister, Karen; I realize that has nothing to do with any critical evaluation of the film, but if you haven’t been exposed to my non sequiturs before you might as well get used to them because they’ll be coming at you in regular offerings as the reviews roll on, just so that neither of us know quite what to expect next).  Y’all come back now, y’hear?  We’ll be a waitin’ for ya! (Assuming that the other important date we've been concerned about, Dec. 21, doesn't turn out as some have interpreted the Mayan calendar, but, if they're right then we'll just say "So long, it's been good to know ya!")

            If you’d like to know more about Hitchcock here are some suggested links: (an 11 min. featurette from 1960 about the promotional strategy for Psycho to increase the suspense—and box-office response—for the film, with a focus on the then-unheard-of requirement that viewers must see it from the beginning rather than wandering in at will) (Here’s an extra for you.  Hitchcock was “Notorious” for inserting himself into his films with brief cameo appearances; here’s a compilation of them that someone painstakingly edited together but watch carefully because some are extremely brief, he’s a bit thinner than we might remember in his earlier years, his back is turned to us, etc.)

            If you’d like to know more about Killing Them Softly here are some suggested links: (a 40 min. featurette press conference from Cannes with director Andrew Dominik and actors Brad Pitt [also one of the producers], Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn, and Scoot McNairy)

            If you’d like to know more about Anna Karenina here are some suggested links: (some random imagery from the production process of the film)

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  1. 12/14/12 (one week before Doomsday)
    Regular contributor rjp had a brief exchange with me this week before I even got the review finished so maybe I can save him some effort and just post it myself (but further comments are always welcome). Hey, man, thanks for your consistent support. Ken

    From: Parker Richard J
    Date: Monday, December 10, 2012 6:35 PM
    To: Ken Burke
    Subject: Killing Them Softly and Hitchcock

    Killing was terrible! I almost asked for my money back. What the heck, Brad?

    Hitchcock the movie was good and kept my attention. Hopkins, as always, excellent. When I first saw the trailer I did not immediately realize Hopkins was playing the role. Scarlet J was appropriately restrained and very good. Mirren also good.

    On Mon, Dec 10, 2012 at 9:12 PM, Ken Burke wrote:

    Hi rjp,
    Thanks for the input. I'll be reviewing both of these before the week is out but I'll forewarn you that my twisted aesthetic found more to appreciate about Killing Them Softly than you did but I'm still working on what to say and how to say it. We're in sync on Hitchcock regarding the acting quality but overall I'm still not sure why we needed this film, except to appreciate those fine performances. Anyway, real comments posted by Friday at the latest. Thanks as always for the comments. Ken

    Monday, December 10, 2012 8:13 PM
    he only reason Siskle and Ebert made it big was because they would argue half the time.

  2. I can see that I need to be careful about sending off-the-cuff remarks to Ken "Siskle" Burke, at least until he publishes his quite detailed and frankly very good reviews. I must agree with Mr. Caine that our English teachers always preached "clear and concise"; but Ken's "rambling" is what brought me to the site in the first place. His reflections often transcend a simple review and provide stimulus for further insight and discussion.

    It's also interesting that Mr. Burke often begins by stating a film disappoints but often goes on to making a strong argument for the film. His Hitchcock review appears to follow the pattern.

    The movie would have succeeded simply by effectively reminding us how cultural norms have changed through the perspective of a 60's movie production. I too remember the ground breaking marketing for Psycho and how effective it was in creating a stir in the days before Twitter and Facebook (or even before answering machines). Considering Alfred Hitchcock Presents was a free over the air broadcast every week, it was easy to imagine the director as over exposed and past his prime.

    Then again, Rod Sterling was doing quite well with his televised Twilight Zone. Personally I liked Hitch's earlier work better, but I can't argue with his taste in Blondes.

    Scarlett Johansson is one intriguing female and enough reason to spend a couple hours in the dark. Ken seems to be unphased (or perhaps cautious) with little comment on this version of a Hitchcock Blonde. I am not so enamored with her as an action hero or even a comedian, but in dramas....yes, now we are talking.

    I'll let my "confidential" Killing Them Softly remarks speak for themself. Well maybe not. (I bet Romney would like to have his "47%" and "self-deport" jewels back) Anyway, when any of the hundreds of HBO Sopranos episodes probably had better scripts and production values, Killing Them Softly, to me seems to be someone's vanity project. Save your money.

    As a post script, I must admit a continuing uneasiness about the role some of these films play in young men's perceptions of themselves and the cultural stereotypes they may wish to emulate. Once again we have to grieve for the slaughter of innocents, this time Friday in an elementary school, that somehow manages to repeat itself over and over again in real life. Yes I know, guns don't kill, people do...but maybe it's time to put down our guns and talk about our problem. Meanwhile, let's go to the movies!

  3. Hi again rj,
    Thanks again for your ongoing contributions (looks like we need to make this table for 4); sorry if I went public with a private post but I wanted to be sure that you were on the record with our First Anniversary material. Anyway, it's great to have your very insightful comments on the films as well as your thoughtful comments on the tragedy in the Northeast. I agree completely: fewer guns, more dialogue, and anything we can salvage about our humanity in the meantime from some contemplation on our cinematic art form, however its various manifestations may appeal (or not) to individual ones of us.

    Please keep up your contributions. I see you as a regular partner in our enterprise. Ken

  4. Ken, great to have your insights about Anna Karenina...I read some of the novel many years ago and my recollection is that the film concentrates on several relationships that are either faltering or just starting to collect together a fully rounded critique of how men and women are (were) judged in Imperial, late 19th C. Russia.

    I never got passed the chapter after chapter about agricultural methods in Russia at the time and chucked it to one side, in favour of the lovely Greta Garbo, whose 1935 version cropped on magically on the TV one day to relive the literary tedium.

    I'm glad the theatrical staging didn't distract you as it did me...I felt too much was mad of it, but it was a clever trick and beautifully realised none the less.

  5. Hi Jason, Thanks so much both for reading my review and commenting on it. Ken